Surcy: reducing the environmental impacts of construction and demolition through the reuse of materials

In Canada, the construction sector alone produces 11 percent of the country’s annual emissions.¹ But from the production of materials to their disposal, construction activities still tend to follow a linear consumption and economy model. This is the problem that Melania Grozdanoska and Jonathan Tremblay, members of Architecture InForm, seek to address with their Surcy project, which was selected for the 2022 Cohort of the Civic Incubator of the Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS). By focusing on deconstruction rather than demolition when preservation is no longer an option, Surcy aims to integrate circularity into the construction industry.

Surcy : réduire l’impact environnemental de la construction grâce au réemploi des matériaux

Jonathan Tremblay and Melania Grozdanoska

Surcy’s mission is to support the development of circular practices in materials management—i.e., to facilitate deconstruction and the reuse of resources. Why is this still a minority practice in the construction industry today?

Jonathan: There are many reasons. Let’s go back to the term “deconstruction,” which is an essential step in the reclamation of materials. In deconstruction, materials are removed, consolidated, then transported and preserved for reuse. During a demolition, however, materials are simply destroyed. Under current regulations, materials salvaged from a building are considered waste, and therefore legally unusable, just as if they were produced through demolition.

Melania: It’s a regulation that significantly hinders reuse. Seeking to circumvent it brings up yet another challenge which has to do with the conformity of the recovered materials. These materials, even if they are not degraded, do not necessarily conform to products currently on the market. This makes it difficult, for insurance purposes, to certify them for current construction standards and repurpose them for a new project due to liability issues related to their condition.

Jonathan: Despite this, there are a few deconstruction and reuse initiatives today. But expertise in this area has gradually diminished over the last several decades. In the past, the cost of labour was low and the cost of materials was high. The objective was less to demolish than to deconstruct, with the goal of recovering valuable materials in the best possible condition. Then the curve was reversed as a consequence of such factors as real-estate speculation and the development of mechanized tools that greatly accelerate the demolition process. The industrialization of housing and economic globalization made materials much more accessible. Construction companies began asking themselves why they should spend time and money on deconstruction, and burden themselves with used materials, when they had such easy access to new ones. Another issue is that demolition saves time on a construction site—which is decisive for profitability. You have to move fast! But with demolition, everything ends up in landfill or recycling, regardless of the condition of the material.

Melania: Yes, but the increase of raw-materials costs over the past few years and difficulties with supply chains has led to the institution of new and more virtuous practices. The demand for reuse is growing! In our work as architects, however, we still see that the industry has a strong preference for demolition over deconstruction. This is a known ecological issue, and we want to propose a solution to it—because our profession has an important impact on the environment, and because we live in a world with limited resources. In the construction sector alone, the production of building materials consumes one-third of the world’s resources¹ and their demolition creates 3.3 million tonnes of waste annually in Quebec.²

Surcy : réduire l’impact environnemental de la construction grâce au réemploi des matériaux

Floor deconstruction (Photo credit : Rotor DC)

To address this problem, you have imagined Surcy, a platform that links actors in the construction sector to materials and other resources, and—more broadly—raises awareness about reuse. How did this idea take shape? 

Melania: We became interested in materials reuse after watching a documentary about Rotor DC, a leading organization in this sector in Belgium. But as we sought to integrate reuse into the projects of our firm, Architecture InForm, we were confronted by reality in the form of several obstacles: It’s difficult to access recovered materials; information is fragmented; the points of sale are limited and not well-known; and it is necessary to go on-site to validate the quantity and quality of material. All of this makes the process of reuse very time-consuming. The magnitude of the task made our team feel determined on the one hand and discouraged on the other, especially knowing that with just a few clicks, someone can have new materials delivered directly to their door. But this motivated us! It goes beyond new practices in our sector. We realized that we had to change an entire system. Surcy is a full-scale project to integrate the circular economy into the construction sector.

Jonathan: There are initiatives that address the regulatory issues we’re discussing, among others—at institutions like Architecture Without Borders Quebec (with their “Materials Without Borders” project) or the new Centre for Intersectoral Study and Research into the Circular Economy (CERIEC) at École de technologie supérieure (ETS)—but they remain marginal and largely unknown in the industry. The project of reintegrating circularity into the construction trades is still in its infancy. The more the various actors work together, in parallel and complementary ways, the faster we will reduce the sector’s environmental impact.

Building on existing work, our Surcy project seeks to accelerate this change by creating a network linking the various sectors of the industry, from deconstruction to reconstruction. By making possible an overview of activities that are currently organized in silos, we want to bring everyone together around circular-economy practices. By developing a platform that links different partners, we want to improve the traceability of materials, make their acquisition as simple as possible, and support users in their projects.

You already have a specific idea of the form Surcy will take. You’ve identified both the challenge and the obstacles to achieving it. What were your expectations when you joined the Civic Incubator?

Melania: There are four of us working on the Surcy project. Jonathan and I are directly involved in the Civic Incubator; our colleagues Amélie Tremblay and Sébastien Beauregard complete the team. Together, we devised a platform to remove the barriers to reuse that we identified. But our biggest fear was to create yet another website no one will visit. In structuring a project on this scale, one that involves a large number of human and technical resources, we felt the need for support.

Jonathan: By going out into the field to talk to different people—in construction, demolition, architecture, engineering, design, and supply sales—we realized that there are specific issues regarding the reuse of materials in each profession, and that our platform would have to be multifaceted to address them all. But how could we work together to achieve this idea of transversality? This was our main question when we started the Civic Incubator journey… and it was followed by many other questions!

Was there a moment when you felt the project take a decisive turn?

Jonathan: In our very first workshops, we returned to the challenge so we could define it precisely by questioning our answers to it. As we went through the “why,” we began to understand that our thinking was in some ways superficial. We needed to dig much deeper. We realized that Surcy is reckoning with a highly polluting industry that does not yet have the right levers to start a sustainable transformation, due to lack of interest, opportunities, or accessibility.

Melania: Our challenge is to accelerate change in an industry that has a complex relationship with the environment—that perceives its preservation as a drag on business. When we articulated it like that, it was a bit daunting, but we put our ideas on paper and thought about the impact we wanted to have in different areas. Visualizing the project as a whole took a weight off our shoulders. It’s a lot less stressful to see how the various steps will follow a common thread.

Melania Grozdanoska and Jonathan Tremblay (Photo credit: Youssef Shoufan)

What solutions are you proposing in order to bring about change?

Melania: Part of the stagnation in industry practices comes from a lack of awareness of the value of materials. It’s necessary to change this by drawing attention to the historical dimension of materials, to the idea that reusing a resource allows us to preserve our heritage. This is our opening argument. Then we describe the respective environmental costs of producing and acquiring a new material versus a recovered one. The surge in resource prices in recent months may well help to convince the most reluctant.

Jonathan: To minimize resistance to change, we want to offer a viable alternative, one that’s as attractive as the usual process, by making our platform widely available. Surcy’s goal is to make acquiring used materials as easy as buying new ones by connecting people who have materials with people who need them.

Melania: For example, a homeowner renovates his or her house and calls a deconstruction company to dismantle bricks, framing, plumbing, and tiles. That same person can then register those materials on the platform and donate or resell them to reuse-material businesses such as plumbing services, woodworking artists, and architectural firms.

Jonathan: Depending on what trade they’re in and what stage of the project they’ve reached, people’s needs and goals will differ. That’s why we’ve worked hard on the user path of the platform: so we can direct them to the right resources and provide them with as much support as possible in adopting material-reuse practices. We’re convinced that we can make the adoption of new habits easier this way, firstly by making an optimized tool available, and secondly by increasing awareness of practices that are economically viable, rooted in the industry’s reality, and inspiring. To achieve this, we are currently seeking funding. If this project interests you, please subscribe to our newsletter or contact us!

¹ Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019
² RECYC-QUÉBEC, 2018 Report on Residual Materials Management

To dig deeper into the subject, read this article published in Esquisses, a magazine by l’Ordre des architectes du Québec: Réemploi de matériaux : parcours à obstacles

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